The presidents in ND history: A top 10 listIt’s not difficult to name the U.S. presidents whose policies have had the most direct impact on North Dakota. They are Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln.
By: Mike Jacobs, Forum News Service
It’s not difficult to name the U.S. presidents whose policies have had the most direct impact on North Dakota. They are Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln.
A handful of others had major influence, too — but it’s harder to round out the Top 10 among presidents influential in what North Dakota was Sunday.
Jefferson sent Lewis and Clark across the Plains to the Pacific, and this alone would earn him a place among the most important presidents in North Dakota history.
Jefferson’s influence is evident on the state’s landscape, too. He was the father of the Northwest Ordinance, which laid out the way in which the West would be surveyed. Our rectilinear landscape is the direct result.
His influence on the state’s political life is enormous, and not just because he had a hand in establishing the government institutions that were adopted in every state. Jefferson’s political philosophy has had an especially lasting impact here.
Lincoln’s contribution might be more concrete. He signed the Homestead Act, which made settlement possible. He also signed the Northern Pacific Land Grant, which brought a transcontinental railroad to the state. The Burlington Northern, successor to the NP Railway, continues to hold land and — especially — minerals in North Dakota.
Of course, Benjamin Harrison must be included on the list of presidents whose policies had a big impact on North Dakota. He signed the bill admitting North Dakota as a state. South Dakota, too. Plus, Montana, Washington, Idaho and Wyoming — more new states than any president other than George Washington.
North Dakotans also regard Theodore Roosevelt as an important influence on the state — but in reality, the time Roosevelt spent in the Little Missouri River Badlands probably had more influence on him than he did on the future state.
Probably the most important of Roosevelt’s contributions to North Dakota — though not necessarily the most appreciated these days — was the system of national wildlife refuges. Several in North Dakota were among the nation’s first, established by Roosevelt’s executive order.
Actions taken by the second Roosevelt probably had more impact. FDR’s economic policies helped the state through the Great Depression and his penchant for building changed the state’s landscape. The Missouri River dams are a Roosevelt legacy.
Among modern presidents, Dwight Eisenhower may rank first in impact on North Dakota — though John Kennedy must be considered, too. The Eisenhower administration brought two important developments, the interstate highway system and the Air Force bases.
Kennedy’s administration helped rural electric cooperatives to take advantage of the Missouri River dams — and to begin large scale development of the state’s coal reserves. All of this was possible using low-interest loans from the Rural Electrification Administration.
Kennedy’s administration was enthusiastic about other large developments, too, including the Garrison Diversion Project, which dominated North Dakota politics for a couple of decades. There’s still agitation to move water from the Missouri across North Dakota.
Jefferson. Lincoln. Harrison. The two Roosevelts. Eisenhower. Kennedy. That gives us seven influential presidents.
But which chief executives would round out a Top 10 list?
Ulysses Grant should make the list, for his administration’s policy toward American Indians — at once paternalist and warlike, compassionate and inept — but with the result that native populations were devastated here and elsewhere on the Plains.
Grant deserves a mention, too, because he was the first president to visit the state — although he was no longer in office when he stopped in Bismarck to celebrate the completion of the Northern Pacific Railway.
William McKinley merits mention for his insistence on the gold standard. This hard currency approach to monetary policy was deeply unpopular in the agricultural and mining states of the West, and helped fan the flames of populism, an enduring piece of North Dakota’s political culture.
So that leaves one place to fill.
My suggested candidate might be a surprise.
Franklin Pierce is regarded as one of the half dozen worst presidents in the nation’s history. His term of office ended in 1857, a full generation before North Dakota became a state.
Yet a single action that he took vaults him onto the list.
He named Isaac Ingalls Stevens as governor of Washington Territory, and on the way to this posting, Stevens commanded an expedition to assess the possibility of a transcontinental railroad across the Northern Plains. The Stevens Expedition did that — and much more, providing glimpses into the region’s natural history, native peoples and the relationships of European and native peoples. Plus artists accompanying Stevens produced unexcelled views of the Northern Plains as they were before the rush of settlement changed the landscape forever.
Jacobs is publisher of the Grand Forks Herald.